That's my view as I type this right now. I'm wearing my orange and blue all over New England hoping to run into one of the nine UConn football fans so that I can feast upon their tears. It's totally a "let me have this" situation - the game meant nothing besides telling me we're not as far along as I was hoping we'd be - but right now I don't care. The "Illinois" across my chest as I boarded the ferry this morning had to bring about an internal "damn you, Illini" from at least one random UConn fan, right? Let me have this.
What's on my mind while I'm on vacation? Next year. It's all I'm really thinking about. I do that thing where I put together next year's depth chart during the bye week, and I'm saving that for after Nebraska, but my thoughts are already there. The contributors on this team so far are the junioriest juniors who ever juniored. Some sophomores, sure, and a few seniors sprinkled here and there, but the story so far is this: we took a bunch of juniors who have started for two seasons (Smalling, Palcho, Hansen, Hobbs et al.) and added FIVE additional junior starters. And not just five random starters - the quarterback, two of the three leading receivers, the leading-the-nation-in-sacks defensive end, and an outside linebacker. We're not just adding a few juniors to the defensive tackle rotation - we've added five every-down players.
And the additions aren't finished. Next year, Luke Ford is added to the mix. Chase Brown and Derrick Smith are added to the list. Any transfers that Lovie pulls from the portal this winter will be added to the list. I doubt he finds four "graduating in three years and eligible immediately with two years remaining" players like Peters, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, and Betiku, but it's quite possible there are several fifth-year transfers next year.
Which means we need to start by talking about 2021 before we talk about 2020. As of right now, with what Saturday looked like, in 2021 we'll have to replace 15 of 24 starters:
Carney/Shogbonyo (whoever is starting next year)
If Jake Cerny replaces Richie Petitbon at right guard next year, it's 16. If Ra'Von Bonner is the starting tailback it's 17. My point: the junioriest juniors who ever juniored.
That's a rough, rough way to sustain a rebuild. I'm sure we'll talk about that just a tiny bit between now and 2021, so that's not really the point of this post, but I thought we should acknowledge this first. I said in 2017 that this would be "an incredibly experienced, senior-laden team in 2020, followed by a cliff in 2021" and then we went out and added FIVE additional juniors to the starting lineup in 2019.
And there's a chance we make the cliff... steeper? Say they don't like their options on the OL and add another Petitbon to fill right guard next season. And say they find a fifth-year middle linebacker to take over for Harding after he graduates. This thing could get insane with senior starters next season. Do I hear 18?
And that's really bad for 2021. But there's some sand over there, so I'm going to go bury my head in it and talk about 2020 like it's the final season for college football.
This 2020 team can best be described as "team with insane experience adds Luke Ford, Marquez Beason, Jadon Thompson, and Reggie Love". And, if he's redshirting (I think he's redshirting?), Isaiah Williams. On paper, so many things are aligned.
With the way I view college football, the stars are aligned next season. Systems are installed, experience is developed, talent has been acquired. There's really no reason a roster like that shouldn't be capable of 9 wins next season.
But with all the turnovers, the penalties, a targeting ejection every game, and scores like Iowa 63, Illinois 0 and Illinois 31, UConn 23, it keeps not advancing towards that. During the 2017 season, I pointed towards the youth - "the talent is there, it just needs to develop". It's now September of 2019, and I'm staring at the 2020 roster, and I'm thinking about a team losing only a few seniors and adding Ford and Beason to the mix, and in my mind that's a 90% chance of great things happening... and yet we're still waiting for it to start happening.
Which means that thinking of next year is weird. I start getting excited (like, really excited - Peters throwing to those three senior receivers, an offensive line with 130+ starts, this improved defense with nine starters returning), and then I think of all the penalties and turnovers on Saturday and wonder if we're ever going to be a disciplined team. The 2020 roster + experience sets up for the best Illini season since 2007, but we just saw more sloppy football on Saturday. Add Luke Ford to this passing game and OH MY GOD. Did we just extend that drive with a roughing-the-passer penalty? OH MY GOD.
At some point, the youth is no longer an excuse. At some point, it has to arrive. We need a click. If it comes in the next few weeks, look out, world. If it doesn't, is it ever going to happen?
My wife is ready to go. I need to wrap this up. I'll settle here: October 12, 2019. I picked it as the breakout moment for Illinois football three years ago, and here I am, still clinging to it. After this past Saturday, I'm really worried that we'll just always be a sloppy football team. But I set a date for "we're back", and I'll hold to it. We can still be building until then, but after that, it's time to see the sloppiness end. I want the second half of 2019 look like a real Big Ten football program.
And then, in 2020, OH MY GOD.